Helen Jean's art flows into her garden and her garden flows into her art. "They feed each other. I simply have to garden to keep grounded."
Over the last 12 years, Helen has created a subtropical haven punctuated with surprise sculptures in her three-quarter acre Kerikeri property. Native rengarenga nestle under exotic heliconias, and lush ligularia share space with chamaedorea palms. No one plant is a standout star, but the juxtaposition of varying leaf textures, some structural repetition, and curious contrasts in scale, weave together a harmonious whole that is a work of art in itself.
Helen paints quirky images of anything from metre-round apples to human-high paintbrushes that often spill out in 3D beyond the confines of their frame. They hint at her background in pottery and her current pull towards sculpture.
“When I bought this place, I wanted to create a sculpture park,” she says.
"At the time though, it looked more like a rubbish tip. It did have mature avocado trees, a fig, some olives and some macadamias but otherwise it was an overgrown jungle with junk everywhere. It didn’t even have a real driveway. The first thing I did, after taking skip-loads of rubbish away, was to create a winding path through the property to give the space, and me, some focus and direction.”
Apart from that, there was no plan – and no money. “The garden evolved gradually from bits of cuttings or seeds I could get or was given. I worked as a professional gardener for eight years and I did anything plant-related to earn an income to support the property. I tried cropping tamarillos, artichokes, lemons and even grew 75,000 beans one year! Never again.
“But the upside was having access to other people’s excess plant material, most of which was free and simply needed lots of love and effort. I remember getting a small clump of mondo grass and breaking it into single blade-sized bits to replant until I had the whole pathway edge.”
Gardening is natural to Helen and runs in her blood.
“My Dad was a landscaper, so I was dragged outside with him from a young age to do the dog work, and both my grandfathers were growers. One grew pineapples in Australia and one was a general cropper.”
Helen’s independent spirit was also apparent early on. “I left home when I was 15, bought a house at a young age, and I built my first vege patch using kitchen utensils because I couldn’t afford tools. There is no ‘can’t’. I’m a believer in life.”
It shows. Helen’s property has now matured into a space dripping in vitality. A sculptural stack of pipfruit stands sentinel by the pleated leaf dinner-plate fig ( Ficus dammaropsis). Strawberries ripen inside a red dinghy long since retired from life at sea. Avocado trunks frame a painting of pears on an outdoor easel. Above them all, queen palms hold court.
Further afield, the original pathway wanders past frangipani, bromeliads, corokia, yucca and aloe, and around a bend to reveal a cyclopean-sized nest in which three mysterious mosaic eggs rest. They look like they will hatch into something bigger than a dragon but smaller than a dinosaur.
Despite the lack of planning, there is obvious order. It’s not the straight line variety, more the curved, curated and sometimes dramatic artist’s eye variety of order. Helen acknowledges she is disciplined and fastidious – and driven. “I have to do it. I’m creating what I want around me here and there’s so much I’ve yet to do. This is my world. It’s where I live, where I create, where I imagine, where I heal, where I tune in, where I get inspired, and where I work. My art is self-taught. I started as a potter before my medium morphed into oil painting and sculpture, with more combos yet to come, and a year of booked commissions ahead.
“Creating this garden gives me the freerange time and space for seeds of new imaginings to land, to incubate and to germinate into the next artwork.” It is fitting that when Helen opened her gardenstudio-gallery space to the public a few years ago, she named it Seed Gallery.
The garden and the creativity here draw people.
The studio is under the house which was originally a packing shed, then had an incarnation as a boatbuilder’s shed, and at some stage was part chook-house. The gallery began life as an old garage. “The gradual transformation of the place is very satisfying to me, but more importantly, it’s soul food for others when they visit. We’re hungry for places of natural beauty and uplift, and in them we can remember who we are and what’s important. I’ve come through some difficult times in my life and I know that creativity, plants and the physicality of gardening help us heal.”
Helen Jean with her fibreglass composite sculpture.
A peg takes a tuck out of the lawn.